Walking out ahead of the first mixed martial arts fight of his career, Graham Park got hit with a wave of nerves. He turned 22 three days earlier and now, he was about to step into a cage and trade blows with another human being, and the idea momentarily sent a ripple of nausea rolling through his body.
But then, he thought about everything he’d already experienced serving in the Canadian Armed Forces, and suddenly, the idea of getting into a fistfight with Mark Drummond didn’t seem so scary.
“I just thought, ‘I’ve done so much more crazier stuff than this. I’ve trained so hard, the mentality I have from being in the military — this guy can’t match that; he doesn’t have what I have,’” recalled Park, who lost that fight to Drummond, but has gone 7-1 since, and carries a four-fight winning streak into his light heavyweight title fight showdown with Neil Berry in the main event of Saturday’s Unified MMA debut on UFC FIGHT PASS.
Park served in the military for the better part of five years, joining out of high school and completing a year-long deployment to Kabul, Afghanistan in 2011. His interest in mixed martial arts flourished during those early years in the service and now nearly eight years after exiting the Armed Forces, the discipline instilled in the 32-year-old emerging talent during that time remains at the center of his approach to training for his career inside the cage.
“Every morning in the military, you get up and you’re doing your PT with your group, and that training regimen sticks with you for life,” said Park, who has earned all seven of his victories inside the first round and has not ventured beyond the opening stanza since his debut loss to Drummond more than a decade ago. “I don’t think a lot of guys have that drive to get up in the morning and get after it, but that’s something that the military breeds into you and it becomes second nature.”
It’s a good thing that hard work and sticking to a grueling schedule have been second nature for Park since his military days, as in addition to being a rising star in the light heavyweight division, native of Corner Brook, Newfoundland also works for the Edmonton Fire Department, joining the force in 2017.
“It’s hard, but it’s what I want to do,” he said of balancing the two careers. “I live outside of town, so I have a 30-minute drive to work, 30-minute drive to the gym. Between work hours, hours I spend at the gym, driving time, and upkeep of my own property, I don’t have a lot of time for anything else.
“I have to pack it in,” continued Park, who claimed the Unified MMA light heavyweight title with a stoppage win over Sheldon Doll in September 2019. “I’ll leave a night shift and think, ‘I’m in town; I have to go to the gym, even though I’m tired.’ I have to make that schedule work because if I don’t train in the morning, I don’t get training partners or training time because I can’t train at night because I’m at work.
“I have to do what I have to do and I love what I do, but it takes a concerted effort. I sacrifice a lot, but I love doing what I do.”
Though he clearly loves what he does, Park doesn’t spend a lot of time doing it, at least not when the lights are on and everyone is watching.
He moved up to light heavyweight two fights ago and has logged a shade under eight minutes in the cage in those two outings. Over the course of his current four-fight winning streak, the St. Albert, Alberta resident has accrued just over 14 minutes of fight time, less than one complete three-round tussle.
Since that initial loss to Drummond, Park has amassed 22:13 of total fight time, less than the 25 minutes he and Berry are allotted for their championship bout this weekend, but that lack of live action doesn’t bother the dangerous finisher one iota.
“We’re not paid by the hour, so if I can do it in 30 seconds every time, I’m going to do it in 30 seconds,” said Park, laughing, but still dead-serious. “People are trying to punch me in the head, so I’m trying to get it done as quickly as possible, and then get on to the rest of the night.
“I don’t worry about not having enough cage time because a fight is a fight and we leave a part of ourselves in the cage every time we go in there,” he continued. “You only have so many shots in the gun before you’re out of ammo, so don’t waste it screwing around in the cage.
“I also think I get enough training time with high-level guys that I know how I can perform over 25 minutes and what my pace needs to be,” Park added. “It’s not an unknown to me. One round or five rounds, I know what my body is going to do because I’ve done it so many times.”
Those guys he spends time training with are the other members of the “Shaved Bears Fight Team” that train under standout Canadian coach Jeff Montemurro, a crew that includes current UFC heavyweight Tanner Boser.
Working with Montemurro, former UFC lightweight Mitch “Danger Zone” Clarke, and talented fighters like Boser ensures that Park is acutely aware of where he stands and where he needs to be if he wants to succeed, not just this weekend against Berry, but at the next level as well.
“Jeff Montemurro is the unsung hero of Canadian MMA; I don’t think he gets nearly enough credit for what he’s done,” began Park. “I’ve trained and been around Mitch Clarke since Day One and I try to take a lot from him. I’ve watched him grow into his coaching role and I take a lot from him, and Tanner Boser’s work ethic in the gym is unreal; he’s the gold standard.
“We call ourselves ‘Shaved Bears Fight Team’ and if there were a team captain, it’s Tanner for sure; he sets the standard high for everybody else. Tanner works the hardest and having that example is (amazing). Iron sharpens iron, and as soon as I catch up a little, he’s pushing a little harder.”
Boser emerged as a breakout name in the UFC heavyweight division last summer, earning stoppage victories over Philipe Lins and Raphael Pessoa a month apart to push his record to 3-1 inside the Octagon, that lone setback coming by unanimous decision against new interim champ Ciryl Gane in the Bonnyville native’s sophomore appearance under the UFC banner.
After consecutive narrow defeats to veterans Andrei Arlovski and Ilir Latifi, “The Bulldozer” got back into the win column at the end of June, rekindling talk of his upside in the heavyweight ranks with a second-round stoppage win over Ovince Saint Preux.
Seeing his teammate succeed and trying to match his efforts in the gym only serve to bolster Park’s belief that should the time come, he too could thrive on the biggest stage in the sport.
“It reinforces that I can compete on the highest level as well,” he said of watching Boser flourish. “I don’t have a ton of cage time, so you could question yourself, let that self-doubt get in there — especially this last year-and-a-half with the pandemic —but it’s like, ‘I’m training with killers here and they’re competitive rounds.’ So I know I can compete at the highest level of the sport because I see it in the gym every day.”
Before he can ponder a potential UFC call, Park has to contend with Berry on Saturday, as he puts his light heavyweight title on the line for the first time after their initial meeting last March was scuttled by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We have a strong working relationship, if you will, with CMAC down in Lethbridge,” he said with a laugh, joking about how frequently members of the two squads are paired off with one another and battling atop the Unified MMA fight cards. “It’s a mutual respect between both sides.
“If you book a fight with a CMAC guy, they’re showing up and they’re ready. It’s not going to be a walk in the park; they’re coming to win.”
That’s precisely what he expects when he steps into the cage with Berry on Saturday, though Park has no intention of ceding his title to the challenger.
“He’s already fought for the belt, he won a belt in another organization in the interim, so he’s coming to prove something, but I’m going to shut him down,” he said without pause. “I don’t think there are any tricks he hasn’t seen, but I intend to put something on him that he can’t handle.”
And for the first time in his career, friends and family will be able to check out the action live on UFC FIGHT PASS.
“I have family from coast-to-coast, and being in the military, I have friends all over the world that I still keep in contact with in different countries,” explained Park. “So to have it on such an easy to access platform amps me up.
“I’m so excited they’re going to be able to see it. It’s really awesome.”
Check out all the action from Unified MMA 40 this Saturday on UFC FIGHT PASS.